Last Updated on April 15, 2023 by BVN
Janel Foster, 29, poses for a portrait with her son Memphis Foster, 1, her mother, Shonda Cunningham (left), and midwife Celest Winfrey at the Foster home on April 4, 2023. (Aryana Noroozi for Black Voice News / CatchLight Local).
April 11, 2023 through April 17, 2023 marks Black Maternal Health Week, a week-long campaign founded and organized by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance which is a Black women-led, cross-sectoral organization that centers Black mothers and birthing people.
The purpose of Black Maternal Health Week is to “build awareness, activism, and community-building to amplify the voices, perspectives and lived experiences of Black Mamas and birthing people.”
As news reports and data continue to reveal the rising rate of Black maternal mortality and inadequate treatment in hospital settings, this year’s theme for Black Maternal Health Week, “Our Bodies Belong to Us: Restoring Black Autonomy and Joy!”, seeks to shine a light on community-centered and cultural practices for maternal care delivered by Black midwives, full-spectrum doulas and other birth and maternal health workers.
In line with the theme of restoring Black autonomy and Joy and with the support of Inland Empire community-based doulas and midwives, the Black Voice News spoke with Black midwives, doulas and families in the area about the joys of parenting and serving their communities, how they hold on to joy while balancing obligations and what they hope for the future.
Meet the Fosters and Their Midwife, Celest Winfrey
“I always wanted to do a homebirth. I just didn’t know financially how I would be able to do it. I was always infatuated with the idea of being able to birth at home and be intervention free, hands off [and] have control. I wanted control over who was going to be caring for me, who was going to be caring for [my son],” Janel Foster, 29, explained. “I just wanted a really good experience. The statistics are not great for Black moms.”
Janel is a worker’s compensation claims adjuster and her husband, Josh, 31, is a police officer in the Inland Empire. With the recent purchase of their home, Janel and her husband were unable to pay for the cost of a homebirth out of pocket, but Janel was open to exploring the possibility. She reached out to her doula who told her not to count out the possibility of having a homebirth.
After interviewing a few midwives, Janel learned about a grant program called The Victoria Project that would offer her financial assistance for a homebirth if chosen. Two months after applying, Janel was awarded the grant and chose Celest Winfrey to be her midwife. Winfrey is a licensed midwife, certified professional midwife, lactation consultant and a trained postpartum doula.
After laboring for three days, Janel gave birth to eight pound, seven ounce Memphis Lee Foster on a Thursday morning, last year. Surrounded by her husband, her doula, her mother, her mother-in-law, Winfrey and her birthing team, Janel accomplished her goal of having control of her birthing experience.
“What helped her as well was, she did have a great doula. And she had a husband who really believed in her,” Winfrey said about Janel. “Her mothers camped out here for those three days [and] cooked.”
Winfrey explained that having family support during an event like this where they encourage the birthing person can help them “stay the course.”
“It’s not like birth just happens,” Winfrey stressed. “For some people, yes, but for some people it [doesn’t]. It takes a little bit of time. You have work to do, that’s why they call it labor. There is a labor part to get your prize, your special gift,” she summarized.
Janel recalled her emotions during the days she spent in labor, explaining she had an attitude and wanted to go to the hospital near the end. While she debated on going to the hospital and how long it could take to see a doctor, her husband, Josh, asked her, “Have you prayed?”
“No,” Janel responded. Josh reminded her that everyone was praying for her and that she had to pray for herself. With her husband’s encouragement, Janel prayed for herself and focused on laboring. “It’s a marathon. It really is,” she concluded.
A journey that led to joy
“As a new parent, I would say the joy is watching him grow. We loved the newborn stage. As he got into the baby stage, we were like ‘We love the baby stage,“ Janel said. “Now, he’s a toddler. We like all the stages, just because he’s a character. He’s growing into his own little person and he knows what he wants.”
Josh voiced that when he was growing up he looked at his dad like he was a superhero and as a father now, that’s how he feels when his son looks at him.
“I know sometimes when I get home and Memphis just runs toward me with open arms, that’s how he looks at me,” Josh said. “Then, just being able to see him grow up — the character and the funny guy that he is now, I look forward to that.”
Although her labor with Memphis was a journey, Janel said it was really emotional and worth every second. She said she isn’t opposed to having one more child. Memphis is Janel and Josh’s first child.
“We’ll see what God has, but one more would be okay for me, even if it’s a boy. I always thought that I would want another boy. I love being a boy mom,” Janel shared. “He’s so fun. He is — as you can see — his own little character and so busy.”
Memphis walked around the coffee table and occasionally threw himself on the couch or on his mom’s lap as she looked at him, describing his personality.
Josh said his favorite part about being a dad is having a miniature version of himself. One thing he’s looking forward to as his son grows up is knowing what kind of trouble he’s going to get into.
“He’s me. He’s my mini-me — the stuff that he does. He looks like his mom, but the things he does [is me],” Josh said. As he recalled his own adolescence, Josh said that as parents, part of finding joy in parenting is looking back at all of the moments — the good, the bad and the funny, and looking forward to what comes next.
Janel sat beside her mom, Shonda Cunningham, and Winfrey, while Memphis walked around the table, picking up his mom’s phone. They smiled as they watched him peek through the window at their dog, Dodger.
“When I meet a family, the biggest joy is when we connect. Automatically I know, I’m called to be in their life for whatever reason,” Winfrey confided. “Then, the next joy is building a relationship with her and Josh. We laughed. There was so much laughter throughout.”
Janel’s midwife and mother share their stories
As a mom of three herself, Winfrey went through the process of having her children at a hospital where she had many appointments with doctors that she called bland. She explained that there isn’t an opportunity to build a relationship with the doctor and most times, the patient doesn’t know if that doctor will be the one to deliver their baby.
In her capacity as a licensed midwife and certified professional midwife, Winfrey has the opportunity to walk alongside families throughout their pregnancy and birthing journeys. She supports birthing people through pregnancy, labor, birth and postpartum.
“I got a chance to know [Janel’s] other side, both their parents, just a loving Christian family. It’s a beautiful experience. I learn from each birth. I learn from each mom and even dads because I can see how they get closer,” Winfrey described. “I see how it builds the character of a mom, or like Janel, a new mom. I saw her grow into her motherhood. We also spend up to six weeks postpartum with the mom.”
After the six, or sometimes eight-week mark, Winfrey said she has to let her families go, which is always hard because of the strong bond she builds with the families. But with social media, Winfrey is able to stay in their lives. She also invites families to occasionally join her in virtual conversations called Midwife Chats, where she educates people on different reproductive and health topics.
Winfrey commented that her best friend always refers to her children as “the chambers of her heart,” a feeling that Winfrey shares about her own children.
“They’re the chambers of our heart. The joy [is] watching them become who they should be or what they’re destined to be. Watching them become and develop and find their pathway and their journeys are like one of the biggest joys of my heart,” Winfrey explained.
Janel’s mom, Shonda Cunningham, shared Winfrey’s sentiment about the joy of watching her own children grow. Janel is the oldest of three children, all of whom are adults now. Cunningham said it was funny Janel mentioned wanting to have a homebirth, because when she was pregnant with Janel, she wanted to have a water birth at a birth center. At the time, she found the cost to be a lot and decided to give birth at the hospital, where she had cesarean sections (c-sections) for all of her births.
Cunningham is a realtor and is married to her high school sweetheart. She said before she and her husband married, they talked about how they wanted to raise their family.
“We started off with God, we ended up with God. They’re all God-fearing Christians. Actually, my older boy, he’s going to get baptized on Sunday. So, the joy is just watching them grow and living their lives, and watching my grandkids grow,” Cunningham offered.
“I find joy [knowing] that they’re doing the things that they want to do in this life. They’ve given me grandkids. They’ve grown up to be successful and responsible young adults.”
For Janel, the joy is in the journey. She explained that she found joy because she did what she wanted for her birth plan. She advised birthing people to have a birth plan and know what will bring them joy in their plan.
“I’m huge on educating yourself because I feel like that has a lot to do with the outcome of the type of birth that you are going to have. If you’re not educated and you can’t advocate for yourself, then you’re not going to have a good experience, in my opinion,” Janel said.